On a Sunday morning in August, the atmosphere at the Free Times Cafe is festive. People have been feasting from a buffet laden with traditional Jewish foods: blintzes, bagels, lox, gefilte fish and salmon patties. These are just some of the Ashkenazic delicacies on offer at Bella! Did Ya Eat?, a Sunday brunch that has been running for almost 23 years.
The meal is accompanied by live Jewish or klezmer music. On this day, it’s the Gypsy Jive Band. Before the music begins, Free Times Cafe’s owner, Judy Perly, 68, is up on the stage leading diners in the weekly group chant of “Oy vay. Oy vay … Oy vaise mir … Oy gevalt …”
The Free Times Cafe, on College Street in Toronto, operates as a restaurant/bar six days a week. On Sunday afternoons, however, Perly runs this Jewish-themed brunch.
In early September, Perly will be spendig a lot of time in the spotlight. On Sept. 6, the Yiddish Vinkl will be screening Bella! Did Ya Eat?, a documentary film about Perly and the cafe that debuted at the 2018 Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Yiddish Vinkl, a group that promotes a deeper understanding of Yiddishkeit, meets monthly at the Free Times for a buffet lunch and speaker. On that day, the speaker will be Perly herself.
She’s holding a food demo and lecture, titled “Putting the Oy in Joy,” in Miss Lou’s Room at 7 p.m. on Sept. 1 at the Harbourfront part of the 2018 Ashkenaz Festival.
Bella! Did Ya Eat? will also be part of Ashkenaz’s new Global Shtetl, an intersection of food, music and diverse cultures. On Sept. 2, a guided tour of Kensington Market will end at Free Times for the buffet and a live performance of the Russian klezmer superstar group, Dobranotch.
Back at the recent Sunday brunch, the Gypsy Jive Band lowers the music and the lights dim. In walks Perly balancing a plate with a piece of cake and a lit candle on her head, which she delivers to graphic designer Avi Dunkelman. He’s there celebrating his 64th birthday with his wife, Shelley.
The other person accepting some birthday cake a la Perly is singing along to every song, but this regular CJN reader (it’s her 85th birthday) says she prefers to remain anonymous. “I don’t want to give myself an ayin hara by having my name in the paper.”
“I’m energized by the people who come down here,” says Perly. “Often it’s for a special celebration…. I greet everybody. I still get tremendous satisfaction from running Bella! Did Ya Eat?
“It feels fresh every week. Every week is amazing. I walk in the door and the restaurant is transformed, there’s this magical buffet…. I create an atmosphere of being at your bubby’s home.”
Perly says she began to do some “soul-searching” in 1990 after a fire at the restaurant (Free Times is now in its 38th year). “I needed to reinvent my restaurant,” she says.
The backroom has been a folk-music hub for years, but she says she didn’t feel connected to the business. “I never felt the restaurant reflected me, but with Bella! Did You Eat?, it’s very personal.
“I wanted to get back to my roots and I wanted to connect to the Jewish community. The buffet was successful from day 1,” she recalls. “That was real validation.
“I’m proud of the fact that we are the only place in the world that has a weekly concert of klezmer and Yiddish music and there’s no cover charge.
“I brought Jewish food back to College Street. This was the heart of the Jewish community for 50 years.”